Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Clockwise from top left: Cats (Screenshot: YouTube), Star Wars: Episode IX—The Rise Of Skywalker (Photo: Lucasfilm Ltd.), Bombshell (Photo: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle), Uncut Gems (Photo: A24)
Graphic: Jimmy Hasse

So many movies, so little time. Every week brings a new crop of them, opening in multiplexes and arthouse theaters across the nation, and arriving in increasingly high volumes on streaming platforms like Netflix. How’s a voracious moviegoer to keep up? That’s where The A.V. Club comes in. The first week of every month, we’ll be previewing all the major movies coming to theaters (or laptops or gaming systems or Rokus) near you, helping narrow down these upcoming releases by making educated guesses on whether they’re worth your time and money.


Playmobil: The Movie

Theaters everywhere December 6

Like a beleaguered divorced dad bumbling through a Christmas list at the last minute, Playmobil: The Movie meets a market saturated with Lego movies (of varying but mostly decent quality) with a significantly less beloved batch of Europe-based living toys. It’s about a pair of siblings (Anya Taylor-Joy and Gabriel Bateman) who are somehow sent to the world of Playmobil), where they encounter a Bond-like secret agent (Daniel Radcliffe) as well as the usual passel of comedians (Jim Gaffigan; Kenan Thompson) and singers (Meghan Trainor, Adam Lambert) willing to lend their voices to multiple B- and C-list movie cartoons.
Will it be worth your time? Playmobil has been kicked around the release schedule for the better part of a year, but, true to the toys’ origin, it debuted in European cinemas over the summer, to tepid reviews and box office. STX is dropping it into U.S. theaters the weekend after Thanksgiving without press screenings, giving it the authentic discount-bin appearance of a toy store going out of business.


The Aeronauts

Select theaters December 6; Amazon Prime December 20

In brave (attempted) defiance of Roger Ebert’s observation that good movies rarely contain a hot air balloon comes The Aeronauts, a whole movie about a hot air balloon, one containing a real-life scientist (Eddie Redmayne) and a fictionalized pilot (Felicity Jones). They’re on a dangerous mission to learn more about 19th-century London’s weather; Tom Harper, who made this year’s Wild Rose, is directorial navigator.
Will it be worth your time? As detailed in our review, The Aeronauts is a pretty good adventure yarn that gets frayed and tangled in the biopic tedium of its too-frequent flashbacks. Still, it beats the previous Redmayne/Jones team-up, The Theory Of Everything, which was nearly all biopic tedium.


Portrait Of A Lady On Fire

Select theaters December 6; expands February 14, 2020

The lady on fire is Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), an 18th-century aristocrat whose mother plans to marry her off against her will. The portrait is by Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a young artist summoned to the family estate on a remote French island, where she’ll masquerade as a confidant for Héloïse but work in secret on a painting for her suitor. From this simple setup, writer-director Céline Sciamma (Tomboy, Girlhood) unfurls a slow-burn romance, which premiered to swoons and raves at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
Will it be worth your time? Very much so—Portrait Of A Lady On Fire may be the year’s most seductive and intoxicating love story, conflating artistic and romantic passion through the steady, attentive gaze of its heroine. Unless you live in New York or Los Angeles, the more pertinent question might be, Is it worth the wait? The film’s U.S. distributor, Neon, is only opening it in those two cities for a week, before a wider Valentine’s Day rollout next year.


In Fabric

Select theaters December 6

British director Peter Strickland takes another dive into the psychosexual deep end with this biting satire of consumer culture masquerading as a killer-dress movie. Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Leo Bill star as unwitting shoppers who don the cursed garment, first straight off the rack from a surrealist nightmare of a department store, then secondhand as a bachelor-party joke. But don’t worry: The dress doesn’t lose any of its malevolent power in resale.
Will it be worth your time? In Fabric isn’t as cohesive of a film as Strickland’s last movie, the excellent The Duke Of Burgundy. But if you’re looking for something completely different (and often hilarious), look no further.


Little Joe

Select theaters December 6

It’s one of the most malleable, enduring premises in all of science fiction: An insidious flora begins snatching bodies and/or taking over minds, until there’s no telling who can be trusted. With Little Joe, the Austrian writer-director Jessica Hausner (Amour Fou) puts her own deadpan, idiosyncratic spin on the scenario, transporting it to the sterile environs of the bio-tech industry with the story of a scientist (Emily Beecham) who begins to fear that her designer creation—said to increase feelings of happiness in its owners—is having a more drastic effect on human brain chemistry.
Will it be worth your time? Most of the critics at this year’s Cannes didn’t think so. But maybe they were all exposed to the pollen of a particularly grumpy plant, because there’s a lot to love about this very unusual genre riff, from Beecham’s dry performance (which won the fest’s Best Actress prize) to the bewitchingly color-coded production design to the singular tone Hausner strikes—a kind of mundane dread. At the very least, you’ll find nothing else like Little Joe growing in the incubators of indie horror.


A Million Little Pieces

Select theaters December 6

Working from James Frey’s Oprah-touted, then Oprah-scorned 2003 “semi-fictional novel,” spousal team Sam and Aaron Taylor-Johnson (behind and in front of the camera, respectively) chart out the slow progress of Frey’s time in rehab after slamming smack-dab into rock bottom. Frey’s subsequent and steady upward trajectory is accompanied by a series of exactly the sort of characters you might expect in a story (or memoir, whatever) like this: the tough-but-fair therapist (Juliette Lewis), the tragic love interest (Odessa Young), and especially the bluntly honest mentor figure, here played by Billy Bob Thornton, operating about halfway up his personal “gruff but lovable asshole” scale.
Will it be worth your time? Stripped of its stylish prose, Frey’s tale of 12-step redemption is one you’ve almost certainly seen before; our own C+ review of the Taylor-Johnsons’ film dubbed it “exactly like every other rehab-facility melodrama ever made.”


The Wolf Hour

Select theaters December 6

The remaining entries from the 2019 Sundance Film Festival lineup continue to trickle into theaters nearly a year later. Here, for example, is The Wolf Hour, a psychological portrait of New York City’s notorious (and sweaty) summer of 1977 as experienced by blocked, shut-in writer June (Naomi Watts). Taking Son Of Sam paranoia indoors, most of The Wolf Hour takes place in a single Bronx apartment as June mentally unravels while laboring over a new manuscript. It’s a Watts showcase, but not a solo piece; there are parts for acclaimed actors like Jennifer Ehle and Kelvin Harrison Jr.
Will it be worth your time? Watts embraces the challenges of the claustrophobic material, delivering a suitably frazzled performance. But for all her commitment, and all the narrowness of its focus, The Wolf Hour doesn’t offer an especially deep psychological portrait.


Knives And Skin

Select theaters December 6

Stories about small towns rocked by the murder of a beautiful young woman are practically a genre unto themselves. But Chicago filmmaker Jennifer Reeder’s take on the trope is among the more singular takes to come out of any medium. Reeder’s in to her story is Carolyn Harper, a high schooler who goes missing after a sexual encounter. But the real stars of the movie are her classmates, an ensemble of impossibly cool and refreshingly diverse eccentrics.
Will it be worth your time? If you were disappointed by the lack of coffee and pie jokes in Twin Peaks: The Return, it’s probably best to skip this one. But if you thought Lynch’s uncompromising return to small-town noir was an invigorating work of art, then you’ll be on Knives And Skin’s wavelength.


Daniel Isn’t Real

Select theaters December 6

Elijah Wood, Daniel Noah, and Josh C. Waller’s genre-focused production company SpectreVision pivots from cosmic horror to the more psychological variety with what can be reductively described as a demonic take on Drop Dead Fred. Miles Robbins stars as a college freshman driven to madness by the reappearance of his childhood imaginary friend, played by Arnold’s son, Patrick Schwarzenegger.
Will it be worth your time? Our own Lawrence Garcia found Daniel Isn’t Real to be more of a collection of tropes than anything else, unfavorably comparing it to both Fight Club and Hereditary.


Midnight Family

Select theaters December 6

Installed in the back seat of a family-run, privately owned ambulance company in Mexico City—where a ratio of 45 government ambulances to nine million citizens has shunted high-speed healthcare into the private sector’s largely unprepared lap—director Luke Lorentzen documents the lives (and business troubles) of the fast-moving Ochoa clan. Under Lorentzen’s eye they joke with each other, scrape together cash to pay for meals, and engage in high-speed pursuits through the city’s streets, hoping to beat other private EMT firms to the injured people who serve as their company’s lifeblood.
Will it be worth your time? Rare is the healthcare documentary that can also feature multiple thrilling car chases, but Lorentzen’s film fits the bill. We praised Midnight Family in our review, both for its gripping one-man cinematography, as well as its refusal to pass judgment on the places where the Ochoas’ altruistic and mercenary impulses overlap.


Jumanji: The Next Level

Theaters everywhere December 13

When in doubt, add DeVito. The It’s Always Sunny star (and buddy Danny Glover) find themselves sucked into the magical video game from Jake Kasdan’s hit Jumanji reboot after his character’s grandson (original protagonist Spencer) surreptitiously repairs it. Inhabiting the bodies of a returning Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart (with Jack Black and Karen Gillan along as vessels for two of the first movie’s other heroes), the geezers have to trek across Jumanji’s various peril-fraught environments, keeping one eye out for Spencer and the other on their ever-endangered supply of extra lives.
Will it be worth your time? Kasdan’s Welcome To The Jungle captured the blissful escapism of video games better than any number of movies based on actual playable titles. Provided the sequel can keep up the pace (and that Johnson’s DeVito impression doesn’t start to grate), there’s no reason to think a second outing won’t serve as a welcome level-up.


Richard Jewell

Theaters everywhere December 13

Clint Eastwood’s late-career exploration of the underestimated white American male finds an intriguing subject in Richard Jewell (I, Tonya standout Paul Walter Hauser), an Atlanta security guard who briefly became a national hero after discovering a backpack filled with bombs at the 1996 Summer Olympics, only to be falsely accused of having planted them himself.
Will it be worth your time? Though it has its share of clumsy and cranky moments (what late-period Eastwood doesn’t?), Richard Jewell is buoyed by strong casting, with humanizing performances from Hauser, Kathy Bates (as Jewell’s mother), and Sam Rockwell (as his exasperated lawyer).


Black Christmas

Theaters everywhere December 13

It’s a movie that sounds like it was generated to fill a particular release date: If a Friday the 13th falls in December, then of course another remake of the 1974 holiday-themed proto-slasher Black Christmas must be assembled. As ever, it’s about sorority girls stalked by a killer; a 2006 edition was critically loathed and mostly forgotten, but this one boasts indie director Sophia Takal, who made the intense, nervy Always Shine, and a screenplay co-authored by horror buff (and one-time A.V. Club contributor) April Wolfe. The cast, meanwhile, is led by Imogen Poots, whose Green Room experience qualifies her for some scrappy, bloody retaliation against the forces of evil.
Will it be worth your time? Horror studio Blumhouse doesn’t score every time, but the fact that they’re producing Takal’s version of Black Christmas indicates that the project might be a slash above other horror remakes.


Bombshell

Select theaters December 13

In 2016, news broke that Fox News chairman and CEO Roger Ailes was under investigation for serial sexual harassment. Less than a year before his death, he was shockingly ousted from the company. Bombshell, from one-time Focker-wrangler Jay Roach, dramatizes the scandal with a touch of Adam McKay infotainment, casting John Lithgow as the slobbering old creep alongside Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, and Margot Robbie as employees of the conservative news network—two real, and one fictional.
Will it be worth your time? Bombshell gingerly dances around its heroines’ more noxious political viewpoints, presumably to avoid alienating the Fox News viewers in the audience. But that crowd probably won’t go see a movie that’s critical of their favorite channel, raising the question of who, exactly, the intended audience for this movie really is.


A Hidden Life

Select theaters December 13

After a decade of variably autobiographical and improvisationally conceived tone poems, Terrence Malick returns at last to the world of scripted drama. His subject: Franz Jägerstätter, a real-life Austrian farmer who refused to fight for Hitler during World War II, even under threat of death. August Diehl, probably best known for his role as a Nazi in Inglourious Basterds, does a 180 in the saintliness department to play the beatified conscientious objector.
Will it be worth your time? Loyalists can keep the faith: A Hidden Life possesses all the natural splendor, hushed spiritual inquiry, and roving camerawork the devoted flock has come to expect from its suddenly and unexpectedly prolific lord of light. Those hoping, however, for a return to the more urgent dramatic stakes of Malick’s earlier work may be disappointed; screenplay or no, this three-hour biopic is very much another whispery sermon. Whether the director’s usual mythic approach is the right one for a true story of moral sacrifice and defiance could be the make or break question.


Uncut Gems

Select theaters December 13

Josh and Benny Safdie secured a career-high performance from Robert Pattinson in their last film, the scuzzy-electrifying Good Time. But that almost feels like a dry run to the wonders they work with Adam Sandler, of all movie stars, in their new opus. Uncut Gems gets an even more charismatic portrait of self-destructive impulses from the Sandman, cast here as a wheeling and dealing NYC jeweler whose addiction to high-stake gambles of all varieties spirals way, way out of control when he comes into possession of a rare and valuable opal.
Will it be worth your time? Uncut Gems may be the most flat-out stressful moviegoing experience of the year—a must-see, in other words, provided you can handle almost two and a half hours of ticking clocks, shrill buzzers, blaring synth music, and Sandler at his most breathlessly, exhilaratingly unhinged. (Next to this tornado of comic recklessness, Punch Drunk Love looks downright relaxed.)


Seberg

Select theaters December 13

Kristen Stewart stars as the eponymous New Wave star in a biopic that chronicles her embrace of radical politics in the late ’60s, the same period during which her Breathless director, Jean-Luc Godard, experienced a similar awakening. Seberg, however, also struck up a romance with Black Power activist Hakim Jamal (played here by Anthony Mackie), putting herself in the crosshairs and on the enemies list of Hoover’s FBI.
Will it be worth your time? It’s been a tough few months for critical favorite Stewart, who’s been cited as the best part of two aggressively mediocre movies: first Elizabeth Banks’ Charlie’s Angels reboot, and now this.


The Death And Life Of John F. Donovan

Select theaters, VOD, and digital platforms December 13

Over a year after it premiered to withering reviews at the Toronto International Film Festival, the English-language debut of Québécois wunderkind Xavier Dolan finally makes its way to U.S. theaters. It’s a star-studded drama, based on some of the writer-director’s own experiences, about a former child actor (Ben Schnetzer) reflecting on his years-spanning pen-pal correspondence with a TV star (Game Of Thrones’ Kit Harington) who’s recently died. The cast also includes Natalie Portman, Susan Sarandon, Kathy Bates, Michael Gambon, and Jacob Tremblay—though not, incidentally, Jessica Chastain, whose entire subplot has been excised. (The original draft of the screenplay reportedly ran 300 pages.)
Will it be worth your time? Once the toast of the festival circuit (he made his debut feature—and his big splash at Cannes—before he turned 21), Dolan has steered into something of a rough patch these past few years, with a string of critically drubbed films that have struggled to acquire distribution in the States. The Death And Life Of John F. Donovan has been widely cited as his worst, though with a cast this good, it can’t be without some pleasures, right?


Rabid

Select theaters December 13

Vancouver filmmaking duo (and twin sisters) Jen and Sylvia Soska take a stab at remaking David Cronenberg’s Canadian horror classic. The 2019 version starts from a slightly different viewpoint, giving more backstory to heroine Rose (Laura Vandervoort) before infecting her with the deadly contagion of the title. But the important stuff—by which we mean the gore and body horror—remain intact.
Will it be worth your time? News of a Rabid remake has been floating around the internet since 2016. That, combined with the film’s absence from the genre-festival circuit, points to a troubled production. The early reviews, however, have been mostly positive.


Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker

Theaters everywhere December 20

It’s been a mere four years since the Star Wars series returned to movie screens after a decade of absence. But it feels like more, because Disney’s Lucasfilm has released four movies plus a buzzy TV series in less time than it took the previous trilogies to open and close. Rise Of Skywalker (or as the credits will call it, Episode IX) will test the series’ cultural saturation once more before a three-year theatrical break. As usual, the plot details of a new Rey/Finn/Poe/Kylo adventure are under wraps, though trailers have let it slip that Emperor Palpatine will get a second lease on life, courtesy of professional nostalgia fetishist J.J. Abrams, returning to the series after kicking off its revival with The Force Awakens.
Will it be worth your time? As the supposed climax to both a recent trilogy and a decades-spanning nonet, Rise Of Skywalker has a lot to live up to, including the smart, ambitious filmmaking of its immediate predecessor, The Last Jedi. But Abrams usually makes, at minimum, fun movies, and the new trilogy’s central characters have built up an awful lot of goodwill, at least from those outside the demographic of bellyaching fans who prefer everyone “keep politics out” of their space operas about fighting fascist empires.


Cats

Theaters everywhere December 20

From the bottom of the pop culture cesspit comes the movie event of the holiday season: a star-studded adaptation of the popular Andrew Lloyd Webber musical in which cats introduce themselves one by one before deciding which one of them will be allowed to die. (A privilege not extended to the audience.) The original Broadway show was famous for exactly one song (the Puccini pastiche “Memory”) and a whole lot of razzle-dazzle staging. The film version, directed by prestige-movie-monger Tom Hooper, has already become notorious for its anthropomorphic felines, hideous digital creations with creepy human features.
Will it be worth your time? Is this something anyone actually wants to see—gene-spliced cat-human hybrids with celebrities’ faces belting out songs as they jump around oversized sets? If the public reaction to the trailers is any indication, the answer is a resounding no.


Spies In Disguise

Theaters everywhere December 25

At the risk of spoiling one of the great weird trailer twists of the last few years, we’ll reveal that this new animated comedy sees Will Smith’s international super-spy forced to cope/coop after getting himself transformed into a pigeon by slightly-bumbling tech specialist Tom Holland. Hijinks, as they say, ensue, as Smith attempts to leverage his body’s new infiltration advantages to take down a Dr. Claw-lite supervillain played by go-to Brit baddie Ben Mendelsohn.
Will it be worth your time? Shorn of the surreal power that accompanied its initial reveal, Spies looks to simply offer some slickly done CG animation, along with a typically overqualified vocal cast to support it. If your kid’s already sick of Star Wars by the time Christmas rolls around, though, you could hypothetically do worse.


Little Women

Theaters everywhere December 25

Lady Bird director Greta Gerwig takes the wheel for the fifth cinematic version of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel, putting her own stamp on the material while respecting the story’s 150-year legacy. Previous adaptations of Little Women have emphasized the March sisters’ various romances, but Gerwig chooses to foreground their ambitions by means of an innovative and skillfully engineered new nonlinear structure.
Will it be worth your time? Oh yes. Gerwig’s direction in Little Women is top-notch, as is the acting talent of the film’s all-star cast, which includes Saoirse Ronan, Laura Dern, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, and Meryl Streep. Plus, there’s a bonus appearance from Bob Odenkirk!


1917

Select theaters December 25

Seventy years after Alfred Hitchcock strove to create the illusion of a whole movie shot in one take, filmmakers are still trying variations on this showboating gimmick. 1917 may be the most elaborate attempt yet, at least among the films that only pretend to unfold via a single shot. Directed by Sam Mendes, who made American Beauty and the last couple Bond pictures, it’s a World War I epic about two British soldiers scrambling across a battle-ravaged France, attempting to warn their advancing comrades of an ambush laid by the Germans. To emphasize the grueling duration of the voyage, Mendes—working with the great cinematographer Roger Deakins—disguises cuts, so that it looks like we’re experiencing an unbroken stretch of perilous misadventure.
Will it be worth your time? 1917 is an undeniable feat of planning, craftsmanship, and moxie—a truly impressive technical achievement. But that’s not the same thing as a great movie, and while the single-shot approach allows for some exciting moments of virtuosic staging, it also draws attention away from the drama of the story. Which is to say, it’s amazing and self-defeating.


Just Mercy

Select theaters December 25

In 1987, Walter McMillian was arrested for the murder of a woman in Monroeville, Alabama and placed on death row before his trial even began—not because of overwhelming or even particularly existent evidence, but seemingly because McMillian was Black, and the victim was white. The true story of the post-conviction battle to stop McMillian’s state execution is the basis for Bryan Stevenson’s memoir Just Mercy, adapted here by Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12), with Jamie Foxx as McMillian and Michael B. Jordan as Stevenson, a lawyer who files appeals and interviews key figures in this exceedingly flimsy case. Brie Larson, O’Shea Jackson Jr., and Tim Blake Nelson round out an impressive cast.
Will it be worth your time? In a lot of ways, Just Mercy is a pretty standard social-issue legal drama. But Cretton and his leads key into the anguish of death row, as well as its built-in racism, for a drama that’s moving beyond its courtroom theatrics.


IP Man 4: The Finale

Select theaters December 25

Donnie Yen’s impassive “saint who kicks people in the face” take on real-life martial arts legend Ip Man returns for a fourth and final go-round, this time taking the United States as its setting for a loose blending of biography and martial arts myth-making spectacular. Scott Adkins co-stars as a loud-mouthed American antagonist, while Danny Chan reprises his role as Ip’s most famous student, Bruce Lee.
Will it be worth your time? Although more convincing as morality plays and fables than as any actual representation of the real-world Ip, this series has always thrived by serving up some of the most engaging fight choreography to hit theaters in recent memory. Yen might be pushing 60, but his speed and precision are still monstrously impressive, especially with series director Wilson Yip on hand to highlight and lend clarity to the most staggering of his moves.


Clemency

Select theaters December 27

This year’s Grand Jury prizewinner from Sundance looks at a hot-button issue—capital punishment in America—through the lens of an intimate character drama. Alfre Woodard plays a prison warden whose years of overseeing death row have taken a toll on her marriage and happiness. Aldis Hodge is the latest inmate facing execution, though public doubt about the evidence in this case has created a glimmer of hope that the governor could make that phone call. The supporting cast includes Wendell Pierce, Richard Schiff, and Danielle Brooks.
Will it be worth your time? The acting is certainly strong—Woodard, as usual and in particular, brings a world of nuance to her role. Whether Clemency has anything new to say on this topic is another matter; there are times when it gives off the impression of a dramatic outline that writer-director Chinonye Chukwu never developed into anything more specific.

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